Do you think device-free social spaces are needed?

A local coffee shop has been getting a lot of attention due to their recently imposed weekend laptop ban. The owner cites two reasons for such severe measures. The first being a lack of seating for patrons during their busiest days, which results in lost revenue for the cafe. The second being the antisocial environment created by a room full of individuals wearing headsets and staring at screens for hours at a time. In addition to the ban, the cafe is also limiting use of their Wi-Fi to a half-hour per customer per purchase. Not surprisingly, these changes are receiving mixed reviews from customers.

Restaurants and cafes have been navigating the positives and negatives of our growing digital connectivity for a number of years. On the one hand, the popularity of sharing food and décor photos on social media has helped many establishments grow their business. However, the realities of our device-obsessed culture has also impacted the experience of customers and staff alike in a many negative ways. The question is, “what, if anything, should we do about it?”

In cafes, the conflict centers around the so called ‘laptop loiterers’ or ‘Wi-Fi hogs’ and others who are there to socialize. In North America and across Europe, cafes have employed both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ measures to address the issue. Some have redesigned their space to create an unwelcoming environment for laptop squatters, with less comfortable seating, communal tables with less privacy, dimmer lighting and louder music. Unfortunately, these changes are also not welcoming for people who are there to visit with others. However, measures that are more targeted, such as blocking wall outlets to prevent the charging of devices, banning laptops and not offering free Wi-Fi, don’t turn off the social crowd as much.

Some restaurants have tried banning phones, a few taking it to the extreme. A restaurant in France embarrasses cellphone users by blowing a whistle for their first offence and then kicking them out for the second offence. Others are going with the opposite strategy and are rewarding customers for ‘good behavior.’ For example, a restaurant in Pennsylvania offers a 10% discount for families of four plus who put their phones away during dinner. Chick-fil-A, the US fast food chain, is offering a free small cone for those who store their silenced phone in a box for the duration of their meal. And in Warsaw, Mastercard developed a promotion for three restaurants that allows customers to win prizes for storing their phones within a ‘capsule,’ with the value of the prize increasing the longer their phone is stored.

There’s a bigger issue at hand here than the struggle between these establishments, device-focused customers and customers looking for a device-free experience. It’s the growing ‘loneliness epidemic’ we’re seeing around the world. There has been a lot of media coverage lately on the increasing isolation that seniors are experiencing. But this trend is not limited to the elderly. It’s estimated that about 20% of Canadian adults experience loneliness and, in the US, it’s doubled over the past three decades from 20% to 40%. It seems that younger generations are feeling it even more so. A 2016 study of Canadian University students found that approximately two-thirds confessed they felt very lonely in the year prior.

Technology plays a key role in contributing to our social isolation. Though the Internet can make us feel more connected, it’s temporary — the more time we spend online, the more we feel disconnected and alone. Time spent online can also take time away from growing and fostering offline relationships, which are more satisfying and rewarding than online relationships. In addition, the mere presence of technology (i.e. digital devices) can hurt our relationships. Research shows that just having a phone nearby lowers relationship quality and closeness. Our use of technology on those around us and those we care about can’t always be seen but it can be significant

Given the rise in loneliness and prevalence of digital devices, is there a need to make some of our social spaces device-free? Yes, I think so. Beyond the emotional toll of feeling lonely, there are also significant health risks. Loneliness is as bad for you as obesity and worse than smoking 15 cigarettes per day; it increases the likelihood of an early death by 26%. Conversely, having greater social connections is associated with cutting our risk of early death in half. For me, that’s a convincing enough reason for creating device-free social spaces that allow people to socialize, and cafes and restaurants seem like a great place to start. After all, we know that food brings people together. The relationships we build over a bite or a drink can help us live a longer, healthier and fuller life. 

I’d love to hear from you. Do you think cafes and restaurants should limit digital devices in any way? Or should everyone be welcomed, whether they want to socialize or not? Are there other social spaces where you think we should ban devices? Let me know your thoughts.


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